Arturo Antonio Chavez | On A Grand Scale

Arturo Antonio Chavez re-creates the majesty of<br />             the Southwest’s landscapes on large canvases

By Dottie Indyke

Arturo Antonio Chavez’s greatest teenage pleasure was visiting his grandmother in Chimayó, NM. In exchange for helping her around the house each morning, she granted him afternoons of total leisure. Not one for conventional adolescent pleasures, he used his golden summer days to roam the hills in the historic northern New Mexico village that has been his ancestral home for nine generations.

His favorite destination was La Cajita, which means “little box,” a place where the Rio Chiquito squeezes between rock walls to form a narrow gorge. There, the remains of a 19th-century chile-grinding operation—grinding stone and paddle wheel mostly intact—provided a rich source of fantasies about the past. On his solo journeys, he chased lizards, blazed his own trails, and cooled off in a swimming hole. A love of the land, he claims, is in his genes.

Creativity is also a family characteristic. His great-grandfather, Reyes Ortega, was the area’s first commercial weaver and founder of Ortega Weaving Company, perhaps the most famous source of Rio Grande-style weaving in the world. His father, Arthur Anthony Usner, was a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a Renaissance man who loved music and art, crafted furniture and toys, and made his own wine and ammunition. Every weekend, he’d sit his five children down to listen to Mozart and Beethoven. Today those children, and their children, carry on the family tradition as renowned artists, musicians, and craftspeople.

For a time it seemed as if Chavez would pursue a career in music. He showed an early talent for the violin, then for viola and cello. When his parents weren’t around, he’d set the cello up on his knee and play it like a guitar. Ultimately he acknowledged classical guitar as his first love, and in the early 1970s he studied the instrument at the University of New Mexico with Cuban-born musician Hector Garcia and performed locally. At the same time, he was making art. His parents bought him art supplies when he was very young and set him loose. Chavez experimented with abstract paintings, Catholic iconography, and figures.

Arturo Antonio Chavez re-creates the majesty of<br />             the Southwest’s landscapes on large canvases

The two worlds of music and art sometimes felt complementary, and other times they collided. It was difficult, Chavez remembers, figuring out exactly what to do with his disparate talents. “One day, after five hours practicing guitar, I looked up at a painting I’d done 10 years earlier,” he says. “I realized the painting was still giving me satisfaction, and I didn’t have to do anything. Music is high maintenance and so temporal. Art is so much more permanent. That painting looked as good as the day I did it, though I hadn’t touched it in a decade. That was a revelation.”

Persuaded by Tolstoy’s reflection that one of the three stumbling blocks to great art is school, Chavez abandoned his university studies to pursue art on his own. While taking figure-drawing classes and visiting art museums in Chicago and New York City, he supported himself as a sales executive and corporate pilot for a manufacturing firm—work that brought little satisfaction. “I always felt I’d rather be painting,” he recalls. “I’d make a call on a customer, and I’d feel like my heart wasn’t in it.” After 10 years in the business, at the age of 33, he made a leap of faith, taking a four-month hiatus to sail down the coast of California and contemplate his future. If he was going to be an artist, it seemed, there was no time like the present.

Early on, his artwork focused on Indian dancers—abstract, expressionistic canvases with lots of movement—and monumental watercolor landscapes, some as large as 40 by 60 inches, which he painted on special paper on a large table in his studio. He joined the New Mexico Watercolor Society and served as president for a year. As he got deeper into his work, however, watercolors no longer suited, and he shifted to oils and acrylics.

“I found I had to be a lot more patient with oils,” he says. “I had to wait for them to dry before I put the next layer on. I was painting watercolors more intuitively, but the type of landscape I wanted to paint required proportioning the canvas and other major planning and preparation.”

He sought the advice and critique of landscape artist Wilson Hurley. When Hurley invited Chavez and a few artist friends to visit his home, the budding artists assumed they’d be painting all afternoon. Instead, they spent hours talking about aviation, engineering, and politics. “One kid raised his hand and said, ‘Mr. Hurley, we’ve been up here for four hours and we haven’t talked about art,’” Chavez recalls. “And Hurley said, ‘Young man, nobody ever made a better anything by being dumb.’”


Chavez continued to work one on one with Hurley, inspired by his enormous canvases and by the artist’s philosophy that only the mechanics, not the essence, of painting can be taught. Hurley encouraged his student to pack an umbrella and easel and go out on location. Outdoors, he admon-ished, is the only place to study color and the only way to learn to paint what one sees.

Taking the advice to heart, Chavez spent many hours in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, the peaks lit red by the late-afternoon sun, and in the badlands of Nambé near his grandmother’s home, painting with only birdsong for company. Twenty years later, he has perfected his plein-air technique. During his first hour on location, he takes a few photographs, makes the occasional pencil drawing, and produces small color studies that capture the light and mood of the place. Back in his studio, he re-composes the scene using a complex mathematical formula that determines the precise spots on his canvas where key intersections of planes or shapes should be located. Working both intuitively and with a calculator, he maps what he calls the “climaxes” of his paintings, in thumbnail sketches on paper.

His on-location studies provide the color guide. “Wilson taught me you can’t learn color from photographs,” Chavez says. “They don’t have the sensitivity of the human eye. The eye is much more receptive to color—it can see 34,000 different shades of color and 17,000 shades of value.”

A physical painter by nature and necessity—working on an 8-foot-tall piece requires plenty of movement—Chavez is equally bold in the artistic challenges he chooses to tackle. Lately he’s expanded his horizons from his old standby, the landscape of New Mexico, to the Big Sur forests and beaches of Northern California as well as Arizona’s majestic deserts and rock scenery. For a decade, he’s worked on depicting the Grand Canyon, a place so vast and intimidating that when he first visited he was at a loss as to where to begin.

“I tried a few times and failed miserably,” he admits. “The last few canyon scenes I’ve done are starting to look like they have some possibilities. It is so challenging. With large work, I get the feeling of grandeur. I’m intrigued with the illusion of space. I can create 80 miles of space in 1/32 of an inch of painting. That’s magical.

“I start off thinking I know what I’m going to do, but in-variably the painting teaches me otherwise,” he continues. “The Chinese say, ‘Every painting, first painting,’ and that sticks in my throat like a bone. I have to learn the same things over every time I paint.”

Soon, he and his wife, Jennifer, and his young son, Benjamin, will pack up and leave for Italy where Chavez will spend a year painting. One day he hopes to set up his easel in Alaska’s Denali National Park, at Niagara Falls, and in South America. There seems little doubt that this motivated, energetic, and passionate man who has scuba dived, parachuted, piloted his own plane, and chased jackrabbits through the cholla cactus will accomplish a great deal while his two feet remain firmly planted on the ground.

“Very few painters can paint naturalistic landscapes on a large scale. That’s one thing that distinguishes me,” he says. “And there are a lot of good painters out there. It takes about 100 years for art history to determine which artists will be in museums. So we’ll see, in time, if I’m still around. That’s one of the reasons I paint on good materials. If just by chance I make a good painting, at least I’ll be in the running.”


Chavez is represented by Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Knox Galleries, Denver, Vail, and Beaver Creek, CO, and Naples, FL; Meyer Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Dartmouth Street Gallery, Albuquerque, NM; and Concetta D Gallery, Albuquerque, NM.

Featured in December 2002